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New productions/new roles: the Canadian Opera Company presents the Canadian premiere of The Handmaid's Tale by Poul Ruders and Paul Bentley.

The Canadian Opera Company launches its 2004-05 season with the Canadian premiere of a startling recent opera based on Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel, The Handmaid's Tale. The composer is Danish, Poul Ruders, while the librettist, Paul Bentley, is English. For the opera's world premiere in Copenhagen on March 6, 2000, the composer translated the text into Danish (the version heard on the DaCapo CD of the opera). This production proved so successful it has already been revived. In April 2003, English National Opera performed it in the original English libretto, which the COC is using for its production. Minnesota Opera presented the North American premiere in Fall 2003. By present-day standards, the opera has already achieved widespread exposure.




Not that it is an easy work to encounter. Quite the contrary. As with Atwood's dystopia, the opera confronts us with a deeply unsettling vision of a police state known as the Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States. A series of disasters, notably earth-quakes along the San Andreas fault, has caused nuclear power plants to explode, spreading radioactivity and toxic wastes far and wide. In the resulting instability, a fundamentalist Christian group seizes power, executes the President and the Congress, and imposes a right-wing dictatorship. The few women still capable of child-bearing are forced to become Handmaids--"two-legged wombs" to breed children for sterile, upper-echelon families. Such is the appalling predicament of Offred ("Of Fred"), the sexual chattel of one of the Commanders. The opera traces her story so far as it can be subsequently reconstructed. Clearly, we are far from the traditional world of opera.

Paul Bentley has done a brilliant job of adapting a complex, first-person narration to the very different needs of the stage. The structure of the novel is captured in a prologue and two acts that unfold in a number of scenes that Bentley has carefully crafted so that scenes in one act echo scenes in the other. Bentley has simplified the chronology and divided the leading character into two figures: Offred, who sings in the present time of Gilead (approximately the end of the 20th century) and her Double, who sings in the time before the revolution. In the COC production, the young Canadian soprano, Stephanie Marshall, reprises the role of Offred, which she sang for ENO, with Krisztina Szabo as the Double. Jean Stilwell will sing the part of Serena Joy, wife of the Commander, Fred, while Helen Todd sings the role of Aunt Lydia, which is deliberately cast in an uncomfortable range of the voice to suggest repression.

COC General Director Richard Bradshaw conducts an orchestra augmented by 18 players for a total of 74. While the strings remain at normal strength, the score calls for a doubling of brass and woodwind. Five percussionists will handle the many unusual instrumental demands, and digital keyboards also supplement the orchestral forces. The chorus will also expand beyond the usual 20 male and 20 female voices with the addition of eight women.

As is often the case with contemporary operas, the score is highly eclectic, drawing upon sources as diverse as medieval chant, J.S. Bach and jazz. The music moves from the merest whisper to an overpowering force. Despite the diverse idioms employed in the music, Bradshaw regards the opera as a "rather traditional piece" structurally--very well written for the orchestra, though with some problematic aspects in the vocal parts. Sustained high-lying passages have given rise to issues of intelligibility, for example, and the dual-language origin of the work presents its own challenges. "This is a piece that was written in English by Margaret Atwood, was adapted to a libretto in English by Bentley, then translated into Danish by the composer, who composed the music to the Danish text," says Bradshaw. "So there are things in the setting of text to music that may work fine in Danish but don't quite do it in English. We've made a few adjustments, altering note values to make English phrases work more naturally, for example." The composer, who will be in Toronto for the COC premiere, was told of the changes and accepted them.


The COC also made a contractual arrangement with Ruders allowing the company to cut up to 20 minutes of music (the recorded Danish version is about two hours and 25 minutes in length). Dramatically, the piece is very assured for the most part, says Bradshaw, with the second act unfolding in "a wonderful, coherent, inevitable way." The first part, however, is rather more attenuated, consisting of both a prologue and Act I, and has been criticized for taking a bit too long to hit dramatic stride. Bradshaw, who has seen both the Royal Danish Opera and the English National Opera productions, has overseen some nipping and tucking that, after a couple of weeks of rehearsals in late August, took just seven to eight minutes out of the piece, again with the composer's approval. "The issue isn't how many minutes the cuts add up to," Bradshaw says. "It's a matter of trying to make sure this very dramatic piece works as well as it can. We've actually put back in something that we cut because we think we can make it work, though we may make other cuts as the rehearsals progress."

The Toronto production is the one seen in Copenhagen and London, with the original director, Phyllida Lloyd, on hand to work with assistant director Michael Walling. The original sets and costumes of Peter McKintosh have also been retained. For example, costumes in the Gilead scenes follow the color symbolism detailed in the novel. Handmaids wear red (the color of blood); the Commander and others in control wear black; the wives are dressed in blue; and others appear in green or grey, depending on their status. Each color thus defines a character's function, particularly crucial in a society where women are forbidden to read or write or to engage in any form of sex except for strictly controlled procreative purposes, on the fundamentalist models of Afghanistan and Iran.

On arrival, the audience sees a loop projection announcing an academic video conference in the year AD 2195. A lecturer's voice (recorded by William Webster) begins the performance with an account reconstructing the tale from the assorted audio tapes left behind 200 years earlier by someone called Offred. A montage of screen images depicts the main outline of events leading to the establishment of Gilead, and the main action follows. The opera ends with a return to the video conference.

Because this work has a cinematic quality, deriving from a series of sometimes quite short scenes and frequent changes of location, it becomes essential to maintain a fairly rapid pace. To facilitate this, the COC is making extensive use of the Hummingbird's "revolve"--a revolving section in the stage that can rotate the basic set quickly. In such an atmospheric piece, lighting plays an integral role. To intensify the impact, a grid pattern of lights in the floor supplements the overhead and side lights. The effect upon the audience should be deeply involving.

This is a very disturbing work, though not necessarily depressing. We are being alerted to potential dangers in our society in this cautionary novel and opera. The mere act of creating such works--especially one that embodies, as The Handmaid's Tale does, both a nightmarish vision of human repression and a celebration of the human spirit--constitutes both an affirmation and a defiance. That a Danish composer felt impelled to undertake this subject perhaps underlines the fact that such dangers present a worldwide challenge.

Eric Domville is a writer, broadcaster and lecturer on opera.
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Author:Domville, Eric
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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